A few months ago, Sony released the most interesting headphones I’ve tried in years. A rare Sony product with a pronounceable name, the $180 LinkBuds have a ring-shaped design that allows ambient sounds to filter through with perfect clarity. They also feature futuristic controls that let you touch space in front of the headphones instead of touching a tiny surface.
Turns out Sony had another addition to the LinkBuds family on the way, the $200 LinkBuds S, and it couldn’t be more different. And by ‘different’ I mean they are a completely normal pair of headphones.
but they are very well normal headphones. In fact, I’d say for most people, they’re the best headphones Sony sells. Right after the WH-1000XM5 headphones, Sony is on a roll.
The original LinkBuds are great, but they’re definitely not for everyone. The lack of noise cancellation (or any noise blocking properties) completely invalidates them for a large group of potential buyers. On the other hand, Sony’s best noise-cancelling headphones, the WF-1000XM4, are quite expensive at $279.
The LinkBuds S, available from May 20, try to offer the best of both worlds, combining noise cancellation that is almost as good as the WF-1000XM4 with an unusually effective surround sound mode. It’s not as good as the cheaper LinkBuds, which have a big hole in them, but it’s better than most.
But headphones have been combining noise cancellation with transparency modes for years; Why use the LinkBuds brand?
Sony says that, like their open-ear siblings, the LinkBuds S are aimed at a new generation of listeners, people who wear at least one earbud most of the day. According to Sony, these young people want to be connected to the real world and their online friends at the same time, hence the focus on environmental awareness in this particular line.
So it’s a good thing that the LinkBuds S are some of the most comfortable earbuds I’ve ever worn. I’m not someone who normally has a lot of issues with headphone comfort, but this is as good as custom-made headphones. Sony claims that they are the smallest and lightest active noise canceling headphones as well, and I’m inclined to believe them.
What sets the LinkBuds S apart from most other headphones with transparency mode is something called Adaptive Sound Control. Basically, the earphones can change sound modes based on your surroundings and movements. Start walking, for example, and the headphones will automatically switch to environmental awareness mode. It’s a feature that Sony has been perfecting over the years, but with the LinkBuds S, I finally feel like it’s really useful.
Over time, the LinkBuds S can learn whether you prefer to turn noise cancellation on or off in different places—for example, if you prefer isolation at the gym but prefer to be environmentally conscious at home. You can even specify locations from a map if you don’t trust Sony to figure it out on its own, though that requires allowing Sony’s app to access your location at all times.
While the headphones may not be able to tell which noise-canceling settings I’d prefer in every situation, I appreciated how the headphones could automatically switch to ambient awareness when I was out walking my dog. There’s also a handy chat to talk feature that automatically switches to ambient awareness when it notices you’re trying to carry on a conversation.
I also like to appreciate that the headphones are pretty good at blocking out wind noise, a reason I often avoid ambient sound modes on other headphones. Alternatively, you can also just use one headset at a time.
Unfortunately, Sony’s controls are still fine. Sony forces you to choose from a handful of control presets rather than letting you assign each touch input to an action of your choosing. There’s no way to skip tracks, adjust volume and control noise cancellation within the same control setup, for example, and the situation is worse with a single earphone. It is extremely annoying.
They also don’t have the cool Wide Tap feature of the original LinkBuds that allowed you to control the earbuds from beyond their actual surface area.
On the plus side, the LinkBuds S feel more responsive than most earbuds, with minimal lag between touch and earbud action. They’re also among the few earphones that have proper keyword detection to summon Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, rather than forcing you to hold down a button, so you can access most features with a voice command. Quick. The caveat is that enabling keyword detection for attendees means you can’t use the left earbud alone, for some reason.
Sony didn’t skimp on sound quality either. Unlike the original LinkBuds, there’s LDAC this time around for maximum Bluetooth quality, and the earbuds manage to sound very well balanced. In fact, to my ear, they sound a bit more neutral than the WF-1000XM4, which I found to be decent, but a bit boomy and a bit dull in the highs, especially with the default foam pads.
The LinkBuds S share some of that sound signature, but it’s less harsh on my ears. They’re still some of the best-sounding headphones in the class, and describing their sound quality is almost debatable for fans, as Sony’s app lets you easily EQ the headphones to your liking. Mostly I appreciate that they are loud enough that I can listen to music with a high dynamic range, like a lot of classical music, without the quiet sections being completely inaudible in noisy environments.
There are certainly better-sounding earphones out there for the price – the OnePlus Buds Pro and Pixel Buds A-Series are more neutral to my ear and measurement platform – but few are as good at blocking out noise. The LinkBuds S are here Really close to the WF-1000XM4 in this regard, which was the best in its class.
That said, if you’re primarily interested in noise cancellation, Anker’s SoundCore Liberty 3 Pro offers comparable performance, better battery life, and equally customizable sound for $170. box, they don’t feel as comfortable or secure as Sony’s, nor do they have the fancy adaptive sound control or voice assistant features.
The biggest bummer about the LinkBuds S is probably the battery life. They’re rated for 20 hours total (6 per charge), which is a bit low by modern standards. That’s not a big deal now, but all batteries degrade over time and you’ll need to charge the case more often than most competitors. They also don’t have wireless charging, which I don’t mind, but some people swear by it. On the plus side, the LinkBuds S charge quickly over USB-C.
And oh yeah, they still can’t connect to multiple devices at the same time. sighs
Despite those caveats, if you don’t know by now, I really like the LinkBuds S. They may not be half as cool as the original LinkBuds, but frankly I think they’re better than Sony’s flagship WF -1000XM4.
You can find headphones with comparable noise cancellation, better sound quality, and better battery life. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that balances all these qualities equally effectively, let alone clever adaptive sound control and assistant integration.
Apple users can still get better service with the AirPods Pro, while Android users may want to wait for the Pixel Buds Pro in July; the latter offer many of the same features as the LinkBuds S for the same price. Still, Sony’s latest headphones tick most of the right boxes, and should be at the top of your list if you’re looking for noise-canceling headphones.